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Fri 17 September 2021

Iain Overton on investigative reporting, systemic nepotism and why the ‘War on Woke’ is a smokescreen

It is official: we should not be concerned about cronyism in the Government.

This, at least, is the conclusion of an official report – the ‘Boardman Review of Government Procurement in the COVID-19 Pandemic’ – commissioned by the Prime Minister and published last week to a muted reception. 

The review was conducted by Nigel Boardman, a City lawyer who is also overseeing a separate review of the Greensill lobbying affair involving former Prime Minister David Cameron. Having been accused by Labour of being “a close friend of the Conservative Government”, it is perhaps unsurprising that Boardman found no “evidence that any contract… was awarded on grounds of favouritism”.

Given that Byline Times and The Citizens have detailed how at least £3 billion of Coronavirus contracts went to companies directly linked to Conservative donors, close friends, associates or members of the party, Boardman’s conclusions seem a little naïve, to say the least.

Perhaps he is blind to what a ‘conflict of interest’ means. After all, the law firm he is a partner of – Slaughter and May – won £7.3 million in Government contracts in 2020/21. But here he is, commissioned by the Conservatives to review Government contracts going to people who profit from their links to the Conservatives. Plus ça change.

To be fair, Boardman did admit that his work was “not a forensic investigation”. So that, in part, explains why there were no references to ‘party donors’ or ‘donations’ in his 14,000-word report. But the official line has been drawn: there is nothing to see here, please move on.

Boardman, no doubt, employed strict criteria on which to judge corruption. He possibly sought out email correspondence that explicitly showed Conservative donors seeking their pound of flesh. But this would be his failing – because this is not how cronyism works. And therein lies a problem, not only with government reviews, but with much of modern-day investigative journalism – in which a focus on explicit examples of malfeasance and wrongdoing fails to examine the less overt, but equally damaging, opacity and unaccountability in British political life.

As a genre of journalism, investigative reporting is deemed by many in power as a necessary evil. They might rail against certain exposés, but investigations such as the one this weekend regarding Prince Michael of Kent being accused of selling Kremlin access is often held up as ‘gold standard’ reporting. It revealed how the Queen’s cousin was filmed at a meeting where undercover reporters were told that he could be hired to make representations to the Kremlin. As journalism goes, it fits neatly into the ‘brown-paper bag stuffed with cash’ sort of exposé that is clean and tidy and leaves little room for ‘alternative facts’, and the sort of undercover reporting I have also done.

But, how much does such an exposé really reform systemic problems in British political life? After all, nobody needed a secret camera to show Boris Johnson accepting a £160,000 donation by a former Russian minister’s wife in return for a tennis match with him. Lubov Chernukhin is even married to a man who served under Vladimir Putin.

Cash for Russian access is right there, hiding in plain sight. But this sort of cash payment cannot be called corruption because Johnson didn’t give Lubov a £20 million contract in between sets, and so it is not ‘corrupt’, according to some. The truth, also, is that writing about donors paying for access to a walled garden of political connections garners far less journalistic capital and political prominence than an undercover sting ever will. 

Indeed, exposing the corrupted architectures of power in the UK – highlighting nepotism and networks of favour – is deemed almost ‘conspiracy theorist’ journalism, no matter how much it can be demonstrated that this framework exists.

I have struggled to get commissioning editors to consider the following a story: that our Prime Minister (Boris Johnson), ex-Prime Minister (David Cameron), Leader of the House of Commons (Jacob Rees-Mogg), a justice of the Supreme Court (Lord Leggatt), Chief of the General Staff (General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith), the Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby), the Editor of the Daily Mail (Geordie Greig), and our future King (Prince William) all went to one private school: Eton. 

Is that a concern? ‘No’, the commissioning editors said. It was either not interesting (‘people don’t care about private schools’) or it could not be proven that these people got their titles and positions of privilege through specific acts of corruption. ‘Show us the masonic handshake’ seemed to be the demand. These editors wanted a Deepthroat exposé of power – even when proof that the institutions of power in the UK favoured old Etonians stared them in the face.

In a way, we are all victims of Watergate – the US landmark case of investigative journalism which showed, in a neat and singular way, how corrupt the Richard Nixon administration was. And this is because Watergate has defined expectations of investigative reporting ever since. Editors want a very specific type of revelation that brings down the whole House of Cards without actually asking: why is it a House of Cards in the first place?

What they do not commission is investigative journalism that challenges the outdated systems and structures of power in of itself. Instead, story-telling narratives and commissioning habits focus invariably on individual malfeasance and wrongdoing. They ask ‘why did this happen at this particular time for this particular reason’ far more than they ask ‘why are these things the way they are in the first place?’

Woe betide those who seek to address the bigger picture. Right-wing websites such as Guido Fawkes dismiss any critique of structural iniquities as ‘tin-hatted’ theory, while Andrew Neil disgracefully writes off journalists like Carole Cadwalladr as a “crazy cat lady”. And the more they do, the more you have to wonder if their dismissals are purposefully intentional: spiking the guns of truth with unfounded claims of conspiracy.

This is also why the ‘War on Woke’ commentary is so damaging. Because it brings everyone, eternally, back to the politics of the self – and not the politics of the system. It is essentially a smokescreen, produced by artificially fanning flames of outrage and it distracts us from questioning often more substantial, systemic iniquities.

True, there are journalists out there who offer up powerful indictments of power and such work (and you know it when you see it) should be applauded. But, all too often, the most influential news outlets in Britain today report more on issues of identity politics than they do on structural concerns. And, in so doing they will, like the Boardman report, fail to reveal abuses of power that are there, woven into the very fabric of the system, staring us all in the face.

That is problematic, not just for journalism, but the entire democratic process.

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